Custer – Hero or Villain?

What is a Hero?

A Hero, as defined by the Oxford Dictionary, is:

1 a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great strength or ability b: an illustrious warrior c: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities d: one that shows great courage

2 a: the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work b: the central figure in an event, period, or movement

3: plural using heroes: SUBMARINE 2

4: an object of extreme admiration and devotion: IDOL

“One peoples’ hero is another peoples’ villain”

Background and Custer’s Death:

George Custer was born on December 5, 1839 in New Rumley, Ohio. He was educated in the United States Military Academy. By the time he graduated the American Civil War was under way; and so he was assigned to the Union Army as a second lieutenant. He arrived at the front during the First Battle of Bull Run, and by June 1863, he was in command of a cavalry brigade, with the rank of brigadier general of volunteers. They fought at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania under the command of General Philip Sheridan in the Shenandoah Valley.

As major general of volunteers, Custer participated in most of the actions of the last campaign (1864 – 1865) of General Ulysses S. Grant.

In 1866, after the war, Custer applied for a leave of absence to accept command of the Mexican cavalry under the Mexican president Benito Ju�rez, who opposed the rule of Emperor Maximilian. Custer’s application was denied; he became lieutenant colonel of the 7th Cavalry Regiment and was assigned to Kansas to engage in the wars against the Native Americans-what were in effect the closing stages of the so-called Indian Wars. He campaigned (1867-1868) against the Cheyenne. In 1873 he was ordered to Dakota Territory to protect railway surveyors and gold miners who were crossing land owned by the Sioux, who were led by Sitting Bull.

After three years of intermittent clashes with the Sioux, the US Army determined to crush the Native Americans by a three-way envelopment. Custer’s regiment formed part of the forces of General Alfred Howe Terry, one of three groups participating in the movement. Ordered by Terry to scout in advance of the main force, Custer’s regiment, on June 24, 1876, located an encampment of Sioux, under the command of the chiefs Gall and Crazy Horse, the size of which Custer underestimated. He attacked the morning after but his regiment was hopelessly outnumbered, and the entire center column, including Custer and 264 of his men, was destroyed.

“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death”

– Chief Sitting Bull, Reported in The

Wild West, Channel 4.

Custer as a Person:

An attempt will now be made to answer the question, “Was Custer a Hero or a Villain?” by examining the personality of Colonel Custer himself.

During the Indian Campaigns Custer was actually a Colonel and not a General, hence the title change above. He had been a General during the Civil War but had been demoted along with a lot of other officers in the peace.

Custer was known to be a “hot- head”; and it was this that gained him his rank in the Civil War. He had also an unshakeable belief in himself and that he was right (during battle he would ride on a white horse whereas his troopers would be on black horses. Another example is when he told his Wife, and I quote “I can’t leave. The army needs people like me”). His personality meant he was prone to disobey orders.

He was a good public speaker and didn’t hesitate to point the finger at other people, even those higher than himself. For example, when having to answer about his actions in the Indian War, and their consequences, he blamed the Secretary of War, his Boss, and even the President’s Brother of corruption. He stated that they were signing treaties with the Indians with one hand, and killing them with the other.

He was old- fashioned and did not like the new type of war, one where technology was used instead of more traditional means. His soldiers, for example, were forced to use single- shot Springfield’s as weapons instead of tanks and stronger cavalry, even though this was becoming more readily available. The Indians used Winchester Rifles.

This was worsened by his ambition and desire of glory. He was greedy for fame (making public speeches about him and his cavalry, wanting to be someone important and not caring how he got there) and great fortunes. If patronised by Soldiers or Civilians alike, he became extremely ruthless and did not hesitate to kill people who questioned his authority.

He was quick at jumping to conclusions, and thought about his opponents’ psychology. For example, when approached by an Indian representative to talk about peace, he immediately assumed that the Indian was there to stir up trouble. Nevertheless, he was dependant on his wife, who organised his comeback into the army after demotion.

Probably one of the greatest effects on Custer’s psychological state was the slaughtering of an entire white village, including men, women, and children. It was shortly after this that the events leading up to the Battle of Little Bighorn began, and Custer’s death.

“Let’s kick their ass and get the Hell out of here”

– General George Armstrong Custer

Other Factors:

There were many other factors that influenced Custer both as a person and his role in the army.

A major influence leading to the battle of Little Bighorn was the discovery of Gold in the Black Hills of Dakota. The Government was under great pressure to allow white people to trespass over the Indian Lands in search for Gold; and with elections just around the corner did not want to gain a bad public image. This led to Army Corruption and the desertion of army troopers who, instead of protecting the lands, did just the opposite and went to search for quick fortunes.

The bringing of the Railroad put great anxiety on Army Troopers from Indian attack. Trees were being cut down and wildlife was quick to dissipate. At this stage people would have liked nothing better than to crush the Indians once and for all.

Note:

Most of the information above has been taken from an American Film directed by Robert Siadmark and written by Bernard Gordan. Both are white Americans and so bias may be present (we must remember that the film is aimed at a largely white audience and so it must have been edited accordingly.

“The white man writing the treaties never meant a word that he said. When we wrote a treaty that said, “You will have the Black Hills as long as the grass shall grow”, we never meant that. It was outright lies. The treaties didn’t hold because one party to them never meant them to hold. It was criminal, in my view, to lie to the Indians in the way that we did”

– Stephen E. Ambrose, Crazy Horse and Custer: the parallel lives of two American warriors, 1975.

The Battle:

Below is a summary of the main facts about the battle of Little Bighorn:

* General Alfred Terry, who was responsible for this particular campaign against the Indians, did not want the leaders of the tribe to escape.

* He wanted to end the Indian Menace once and for all.

* Ordered Colonel John Gibbon to take a column of infantry eastwards out of Fort Ellis along the valley of the Yellowstone River to where it met the Big Horn River.

* Told to attack the Indian Camp from the North.

* General Custer to attack from the South with the seventh Cavalry.

* On 25 June 1876, Custer and men were 15 miles from Little Bighorn. At dawn, Custer’s Indian Scouts spotted the Indian Camp, and warned Custer that the seventh Cavalry didn’t have enough bullets to exterminate all Indians present.

* Custer split men into three groups. Captain Fredrick Benteen took three companies and moved west. Major Marcus Reno took another three companies and prepared to attack from the south. Custer went with remaining five companies to attack from the North.

* The attack went badly wrong from the start.

* Reno’s charge was stopped by hordes of Lakota warriors. Benteen quickly went to Reno’s aid, and tried desperately to rearrange the army without avail.

* Custer and his men were left alone and without support.

* Were met by 1,500 Indian Warriors on horseback.

* As they tried to reach higher ground, Crazy Horse and 1,000 Warriors with the very latest repeating rifles attacked them.

* Entire Battle lasted one hour.

* All 225 men dead- nobody was left alive.

* 8 days later, the whole of America heard of the massacre.

“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”

– General George Custer: June 1876. Quoted in The Wild West, Channel 4

Conclusion: Hero or Villain?

The matter of direct observation during the course of this assessment has led me to believe that there is no strict right or wrong answer to the question, “Was Custer a Hero or a Villain?”

Whether Custer is regarded as a Hero or a Villain depends on whose side you are looking from. The attack that led to the destruction of the 7th Cavalry was an act of folly. He actually attacked a force of hostiles, a direct violation of his orders, which was to locate the hostile tribes, report back and wait for support; without knowing how the land lay or how many were in the enemy ranks.

We know that Custer was psychologically affected by the massacre of all White men, women and children in a village just before the commencement of the final battle. This combined with Custer’s already negative personality is probably the best justification of his actions.

“The largest Indian camp on the North American continent is ahead and I am going to attack it”

“They tell me I murdered Custer. It is a lie. He was a fool and rode to his death”

His already old- fashioned war methods and ideas, as well as the lack of soldiers, left him at a great disadvantage, and even though told repeatedly the consequences of his actions, he decided to use his own judgement that eventually led to the slaughter of hundreds of innocent soldiers under his command.

Custer was impatient and wanted instant glory, which he definitely achieved.

To find a consistent answer to the question we are trying to interpret, let us quickly revise the definition of a hero:

1 a: a mythological or legendary figure often of divine descent endowed with great

strength or ability

It would be almost beyond belief to think of Custer as a “mythological” or “legendary” figure, especially one sent to us from the Gods!

b: a man admired for his achievements and noble qualities

Getting 225 army troopers killed does not seem to me as much of a positive achievement. As for noble qualities, from what I know and have pieced together from Custer this does definitely not apply!

However, we must take under account the fact that the Battle of Little Bighorn in some ways hastened the end of the Indians, although I still do not think that this is a positive achievement, especially one worth the title “hero”.

d: one that shows great courage

Custer did indeed show great courage, even though this was led by his hunger for glory and his unshakeable belief in himself.

2 a: the principal male character in a literary or dramatic work

This was no fictionalised story.

b: the central figure in an event, period, or movement

This is definitely true. He was the central figure during this particular period of time, and it was his command that led to the attacking of the Indian Camp.

3: an object of extreme admiration and devotion: IDOL

Whether Custer is an object of extreme admiration and devotion, an idol, is solely down to opinion. On one hand we have the fact that he bravely fought for his Country, knowing full well that he would get himself killed in the process, and on the other hand we have the fact that even though he knew the consequences of his actions, he still rode into battle foolishly. His actions led to the deaths of over 225 people, which could have been easily avoided.

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